Standing alone on the Living Bridge, an abandoned railway turned garden on 97 St., I noticed few things out of place beside the kale and tomato planters: dirty discarded jeans, filthy tees, empty creamers and food wrappers. I poked at an empty chip bag with my foot; it folded in on itself and revealed a bloodied syringe underneath. There was no one around, but there were signs of human life everywhere.
It was an overcast fall day. I’d just climbed the skeletal metal staircase to the bridge, a place I’d only previously seen from the smudged bus window. It was conceived by artists and designers Chelsea Boos, Carmen Douville and Erin Ross in 2013 as an urban intervention to beautify an “unused” space by transforming it into a community hub/edible garden. Though privately owned by Qualico Communities, the Living Bridge is otherwise a very public space.
Community gardens are often built on the ideals of accessible space and public ownership. The Living Bridge is fully maintained by volunteers who lay no personal claim to anything planted, but collectively keep the garden alive. The bridge’s website states its purpose “is to foster pride and community engagement for the Downtown Edmonton, McCauley and Boyle Street neighbourhoods that intersect its borders.” Set about halfway through Chinatown—right on the corners of these three distinct neighbourhoods—it acts as a nexus, at least in a geographical sense.
While Downtown holds a lot of business-class wealth, Boyle Street and McCauley tend to be remembered for crime, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. Seldom are these two neighbourhoods recalled for their diversity; the area is also home to a large Aboriginal, East Asian and African population, as well as an artistic community. Long-time resident Timothy Anderson belongs to the latter. The author and MacEwan University instructor recognizes that the garden’s traces of poverty make some residents uncomfortable—the syringes, abandoned wardrobes, hollow remand jail towering above—but he reminded me that “ownership” is a fluid concept, and the ways we express pride over anything, whether spaces or objects, are subjective.
Surrounding the garbage—or perhaps tucked between it—the Living Bridge is divided into 24 planting beds made of temporary twine planters with a mix of flowers, brush and edibles. The local food movement was trendy when the garden started up, but no one really eats the produce, explains garden coordinator Stephanie Bailey. Like several urban DIY fads and movements, it’s a marker of self-sustaining communities and liberal identity. But ultimately, small urban gardens like this just aren’t a viable form of food security on their own. Bailey (who has since left the coordinator role) is more hopeful about the bridge’s potential to unite communities. “As opposed to other urban community gardens where you would pay for your plot, this was everyone’s garden,” she said. “So you can help garden whatever plot you want.”
When she started managing the project in 2014, she wanted to preserve its initial “by and for the community” ethos. The garden was planted by volunteers, primarily from a young and professional creative class, who didn’t all live in the area and couldn’t necessarily speak for its residents. So with the support of Boos, Douville and Ross, Bailey recruited 65 community members from Boyle Street, McCauley and Downtown to tend to the garden. The result was a mix of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but Bailey still wondered if so many different types of people would be meaningfully engaged to take collective ownership over a single project.
Almost as quickly as a garden went up, so too did a camp; people started staying overnight. And the City of Edmonton, which helped get the project off the ground by supplying fertilized water, decided to retract its involvement with the Living Bridge last year.
Nearby, Mary Burlie Park was already known for violence, one City representative indicated to Bailey, and administrators took issue with the garden’s potential to attract “loiterers” and extend these issues. “I never once had any problems with people from Mary Burlie who were spending time on the bridge,” says Bailey, but she doesn’t deny the risky activities that occur on the bridge. (The city employee who worked closely with the Living Bridge organizers was unavailable for an interview.)
She recalls an organized volunteer cleanup that turned up hundreds of needles under a big water barrel. Clearing the bio-waste is obviously necessary, but she says it is also important that Edmontonians are exposed to the area’s realities of poverty and addiction. One businesswoman, Bailey recalls, had never seen a drug needle before. “[She] had no idea this was happening here,” says Bailey.
No one wants to see dirty needles on their footpaths—and that includes the people who use them. But the City’s concern with safety seems to adhere to a very particular definition of “safe.” What activities, what kinds of people, count as unsafe? And whose safety and sensibilities are top priority?
“Where do you want people to go?” asks Timothy Anderson, who is still bothered by the City’s decision to remove drinking water sources used by the homeless community from Giovanni Caboto Park a decade ago. He tried to remedy the situation by keeping one of his outdoor hoses out for the homeless, but his neighbours weren’t fans of the crowds it drew. “Most of the time they’re just hanging out, laughing, joking, finding what fun they can in their lives. They’re not quiet, but why do people find that so offensive? If I saw two or three of the students from MacEwan on the sidewalk in exactly the same position as a clump of homeless people, would I feel that that was something that shouldn’t be there? The answer is ‘no.’ So why do people find that so threatening?” Ironically, it seems that the street-entrenched communities of Edmonton are forced to live in the shadows while existing in the spotlight.
Months after my first visit last fall, I returned on a sun-drenched spring day. Again, I found myself alone, but I ventured past the freshly sown seeds into Mary Burlie Park and met a couple of people sitting under a tree.
They asked me if I had the time, and I asked them what they thought of the bridge. One man, who has been homeless for a year, called it “awesome.” He added, “It’s a crosswalk for the homeless. It’s history,” and he’d hate to see it torn down, which he thought was inevitable.
He was talking about the bridge itself, and not necessarily the newly added gardens, decorative planters and seating. Those are benchmarks of revitalization, which he had mixed feelings about. Pointing to the Ice District and future Rogers Place, he said it will expose many middle-class Edmontonians to homelessness and poverty, and, ultimately, increase prejudices, particularly against aboriginal people.
Edmonton, he believes, is trying too hard to make itself perfect, or at least look that way, covering up its economic disparity and pushing the people pegged as “problems” further into the peripheries. Given all the redevelopment, he said it’s hard for him to care about the Living Bridge, since he considers it temporary anyway—like a placeholder until it’s sold.
The other person in the park, however, felt differently about the bridge. “I’m homeless and Aboriginal,” she stated, “and I love this garden.” She told me that she camped on the bridge for a whole year—weeding, watering and planting in the garden whenever she could during the growing season. One group of gardeners had brought flower bunches but only planted half of them—and never returned. “I couldn’t stand to see [the plants] die,” she said. So she tended to them herself. Gardening is “spiritual and therapeutic,” she said. “It helps me think less about my plights.”
Bailey acknowledged the irony of the Living Bridge to me: Some people, including City administrators, object to people using the bridge to camp, yet harbour no qualms about artists—many non-residents—coming in and altering the old rail-yard to their whims. Nobody had a problem with her reimagining the site because “I’m just a middle class, white kid,” Bailey stated matter-of-factly.
What people forget about “urban interventionism,” Bailey explained, is that one rarely reimagines an “unused” or “neutral” space; someone has probably already been using that land. Before they were flowerbeds, they were human beds. Though street-entrenched people are seldom credited or even acknowledged for building their own definition of community, the Living Bridge offers a space that allows them, and others, to cultivate a unique sense of pride in their own neighbourhood.
She recalled one late night when she’d biked by the bridge and noticed a knocked over water barrel. Bailey struggled to lift the heavy container until three men camping in the garden came to help. Then, as she left the bridge, someone walked over to the barrel, and she heard the men tell the person not to play with it. “It was like 24-hour surveillance.”